The end of a claustrophobic life

I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ – discuss

There must be more than this

Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.

Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.

But what happened in Heaven?

‘What did you do there?’

After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174

I like that.

I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress)  irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my

own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.

He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:

They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)

The Humans

by Matt Haig [Canongate Books Ltd]
Price: £6.29 - - -

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: £3.99 - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

Star Struck

by Dr. David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey [Zondervan]
Price: £12.99 - - -

Further inconvenient truth

The missionary roots of liberal democracy

Panomara of Central Accra
Accra, Ghana

The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.

Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:

​’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’

This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.

Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).

Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.

Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.

  • These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.

How the Bible works – Tom Wright

How to get the Bible to work

Evangelicals believe the Bible’s a kind of tool for day-to-day life and eternal life. But how exactly? At one point Moses asks God about what to with someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath. ‘Stone him to death’ comes the answer. Okay…

Tom Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God is the fun-size version of his much larger The New Testament and the People of God. But most of us won’t eat that rich meal, and provided you can put up with its cut-down, written on a Saturday afternoon, would-love-to-linger-but-must-dash breathlessness, there’s a fully working framework for thinking about the Bible in these sparse pages.

Wright points out, first, that Scripture is a story.  If you don’t think ‘authority’ can be located within ‘story,’ look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. It teaches ‘Love your neighbour’ better than any number of laws, bye-laws, special exceptions and precedents. So scripture exercises its authority largely by setting out a grand narrative and getting us to work out how we fit in it.

Second, it’s a story in several phases. Wright suggest five. His five stages are:

  1. Creation (Genesis 1-2);
  2. Fall (Genesis 3-11)
  3. Preparation for Christ (all the Old Testament from Genesis 12 onwards);
  4. Jesus’ incarnation and what he did next (the gospels)
  5. The working out of New Creation through the life of the Church (Acts onward.)

It assumes a sixth act, the end/beginning of all things, of which Act 5 is just a foreshadowing and catalyst.

Third, it’s a story we are in. And we work out our part of the story by engaging with the earlier chapters.

So, roughly Wright’s framework for understanding and being shaped by the authority of God through scripture is:

  1. Read earlier phases in the light of the final phase
  2. Draw on the whole story as we play our part in progressing the story.

This framework explains a lot: the unity of scripture; and the reason for discarding lots of its commands and emphases, such as the ones about stoning sabbath breakers.

We discard them because we understand them to have had, and have now finished having, their role in their story. Once you’ve dug the foundations, you can stop digging foundations and do the next things. You stop digging not because foundations were a bad idea, but because they have done their proper job of providing the necessary base for the next layer. In that specific example, the total-war mindset to preserve tribal identity in the late bronze age is different from the mindset of living out the good of Christ’s kingdom today, and you can’t simply cut-and-paste from one era to another.

So it isn’t that the Old Testament is ‘somehow about legal stuff’ and the New is ‘somehow about mercy stuff’, but we read and consider different parts depending on where they fit in the overall story.

As Wright puts it himself at one point: one cannot see the Bible ‘in the flat,’ with something being validated or somehow even ennobled just because it is in the Bible …

… But when we approach the question of scripture’s authority … in the light of the whole story and intention of the creator God, dealing with his world step-by-step and eventually dealing decisively with it in and through Jesus Christ, then we discover that the authority of God, as mediated through and in the whole scripture, points to the renewal of creation through Jesus Christ as the key theme of the whole story. (p 194)

and

our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter [the first phases] … and the complete coming of the Kingdom [the final future phase] …once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall into place. (p127)

I bought my copy of this book from CLC Cambridge. It’s also available online:

by - [-]
Price: £7.73 - - -

‘Just mercy’

American gulag.

Which country currently has locked 2.3m people in its prisons? Which country has jailed nearly 3,000 children for life with no possibility of parole? Can’t be North Korea (country isn’t big enough). Isn’t China. Stalin is dead so it’s not Russia either.

Welcome to the USA, home to between a quarter and a third of all the world’s jailed, the exceptional nation.

Bryan Stephenson is an African-American lawyer who set up a practice to offer legal support to death-row prisoners and to children who were jailed for life.

He worked in Monroe County, home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In a great irony, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is celebrated widely in Monroe County, but does not seem to have made much difference to the courts, where African-Americans, especially poor ones, face a fierce fight to get justice.

It’s an astonishing book – both for the stories it tells, and its glimpses of grace. I cut and pasted a few bits below.

No HIstorical parallel

‘When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole … one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ (pp 14-15)

Youth justice

‘Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.’ (p 15)

Further consequences of mass incarceration

We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions … Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. (p16)

A principle

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. (p 17-18)

Alabama’s racist constitution

‘The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.’ (Section 102 of the Alabama constitution.) This was only voted down in a statewide ballot in 2000AD; still, 41% of voters opposed it. (It had been unenforceable since a Supreme Court ruling in 1967)

Redemption and mercy

I have discovered, deep in the heart of many condemned and incarcerated prisoners, the scattered traces of hope and humanity–seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.’ (p17)

‘The true measure of [our society’s character] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community … Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive … The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace.’ (p18)

by - [-]
Price: £9.99 - - -

The game is up for the Christian publishing industry?

I need help.

I have just thought a terrible thought.

The single biggest obstacle to getting books into the hands of eager readers is the Christian publishing industry, an industry that I love, respect and owe much to.

Here’s the problem.

I am preparing a talk on Revelation. I would like to read a book called ‘The Theology of Revelation’ by scholar Richard Bauckham. An internet search tells me it’s on sale at Amazon for £21 or rather less on Kindle. The same search pulls up a pdf copy of the book available for free.

I am queasy about downloading the pdf because I am cheating somehow, but I am also queasy about shelling out £20, even if I did this through my local Christian bookshop. £20 is a lot of money.

What I would really like to do, it occurs to me, is email Richard Bauckham and ask if he minded me reading the free pdf. I do not think he would mind (I don’t know him). But I also think he would say he has a contract with the publishers and they would mind.

I decide to do without the book, so I neither download it nor buy it. The Christian publishing industry made the barriers too high for me.

In the late-medieval days of yore– say 1989–the only way to get material from a fine mind like Richard Bauckham into my lesser head was to have a Christian publishing industry. And it was fantastic. It shaped the Protestant world.  The book cost £20. That was relatively expensive, but we paid it sometimes because we knew that although some money went to the author, most went to maintaining a world-spanning chain that edited, printed, marketed, warehoused, and displayed this and thousands of other wonderful books and made them available everywhere. In an analogue world, this was a modest cost for unimagineably vast benefits.

But everything has changed. Getting Prof Bauckman’s book direct from his head to mine now costs almost nothing, probably less than a penny.

So why can’t the book be available for 99p, most of which would go to Prof Bauckham? Why not? Because the publishers and the booksellers can’t live with that price, and through their contractual arrangements they stand in the way of it being available at that price.  Christian publishers and booksellers, once the friend of Christians who wish to learn, have become their enemy. This is my terrible thought. Committed to an archaic ante-deluvian distribution model, they make books needlessly, ruinously expensive and thus drastically reduce their circulation and usefulness. Bauckham should be read by his tens of thousands; but thanks to the Christian publishing industry, he only has his thousands, or indeed his hundreds. What a terrible waste! 

But, say the industry, it’s not so simple. They will tell me I am underplaying their contribution: talent-spotting, editing, marketing,  gate-keeping; that magical work of taking an MS and making it fluent, coherent, available, and hallmarked as theologically solid and well-written.

I will return and say that may have been true once but is so no longer. Editing? You jest. Developing authors? Dream on. Marketing? Authors have to  do it themselves. Typesetting and cover design? Free or cheap alternatives will do just as well for this kind of book. (See what CUP did with Bauckham’s book, below: this is intern stuff.) Gatekeeping? Proper reader reviews are worth much more than the fluff that goes on the cover. What is left? The prestige of being published by a respected house. This is true. But it ain’t worth £19, not when these very respected names are being taken over by accountants and falling off the perch like the rest of the rust-belt.

Publishing once was a world-changing industry; so was coal-mining.

Please someone help me, save me from my sins!

I edited this blog after first writing it, to try to simplify the arguments. I changed the title from ‘Christian bookshops’ to ‘Christian publishing industry’. I also added the Amazon ref to Prof Bauckham’s book, which I would like to warmly recommend–but of course I  haven’t read it. 

‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

by - [-]
Price: - - - -

A business leader ponders commitment to Christ 

Is 51% control enough for God?

‘… It was if my life had shares and God wanted 100 percent control of it. A divine tug-of-war ensued. Why would God want all of me? Could there be a joint venture? Could I carve out a special deal to suit me? What about a partnership? Was 50/50 not a good arrangement. It became clear that true freedom was to be found in full surrender to the love of God. It did not come to me easily, nor at once. I got there in stages. I recall praying that God would take 51 percent of my life–control but not whole ownership. I remember the churning an d the heated deliberation within myself as this plan did not seem to achieve the desired objective. I saw then, and recognize now more fully, the arrogance of negotiating with God and the foolishness in believing I had anything to offer God. I recall praying: “Lord have all of me. Only don’t abandon me.” In that moment, I realized that the God who loved the entire world also loved mean and would stay faithful to me, even when I was not faithful to him, as has sadly often been the case.

‘What struck me at once was the immediate change in every area of my life…’

Ken Costa, banker, in his helpful book God at Work.

by - [-]
Price: - - - -